Species (1995, USA) Review

Species (1995), directed by Roger Donaldson.

Written by Dennis Feldman.
Starring Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley.

Followed by Species II (1998)

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Species (1995)

18 (BBFC) / R (MPAA)

Written by Dennis Feldman (Virus) and directed by Roger Donaldson (Dante’s Peak), Species is best described by my friend Dom O’Brien as “a softcore C movie masquerading around with an A movie budget.”

I adored Species as a teenager, having persuaded my parents to rent it on VHS back in 1998/99. They trusted me with the horror genre, and I doubt they realised how sexually charged this genre flick actually was. Yeah, the VHS cover featured Natasha Henstridge in a state of seductive transformation – a extraterrestrial-human hybrid – but it also featured headshots of Forest Whitaker (Platoon), Alfred Molina (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), and the Academy award-winning Ben Kingsley (Gandhi)! [1] How were they supposed to know that they had just rented their thirteen-year-old son smut!

“For the past 30 years the world’s most powerful radio telescopes have been scanning the heavens searching for signals from alien civilizations. This project is called S.E.T.I. – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

Species (1995)

In 1993, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project received a transmission relating to the creation of a clean endless fuel source. Perceived as a friendly transmission from extraterrestrial life, scientists continued this form of dialogue, and soon a second transmission was received… Detailed information was provided on the structure of alien DNA, along with guidance on how it could be spliced with human DNA!

Led by Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley), a team is established to recreate the DNA sequence and inject it into human ovum. The sequence is created successfully and injected into one hundred ovum; of which seven divided! Four of those seven die out, leaving just three hybrid eggs. Two are frozen for future sequels, whilst the third – designated S1L or “Sil” – is allowed to grow and mature.

Species (1995)

The growth of the S1L ova was unexpected; accelerating at an astonishing speed when compared to the human reproductive cycle. Within two hours, the egg had begun to diffuse and multiply, and by seventy-second hour Sil had gained form. Within a week she had developed into a fully formed fetus, and after just one month from conception, a humanlike child is born.

Kept within an isolation chamber in quarantine, Fitch and his team observe for a further two months as Sil continues to grow into the equivalent of a twelve-year-old girl; portrayed with a childlike innocence by Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek). Fitch himself had ensured that a female was induced from the experiment, under the misguided assumption that the female species are “more docile and controllable”.

“More docile and controllable, eh? You guys don’t get out much.”

Species (1995)

Instead, Sil is aggressive when threatened; her agility and strength being far beyond that of the average human being. Observations of her erratic sleeping patterns – the nightmares she incurs, and violent outbursts that appear alongside them – along with her continued growth begin to unnerve Fitch and his team, leading to the decision to terminate the experiment. Cyanide gas is pumped into Sil’s isolation chamber but her survival instinct takes over. Smashing through the chamber, Sil escapes the facility as the scientists slowly die from cyanide poisoning. Fitch looks on with tears in his eyes, horrified by the realisation that Sil could be a real threat to the human race…

“She’s a predator. Her eyes are in front so she can judge the distance to her prey.”

Species (1995)

This is where the eclectic cast of Species take center stage! Fitch needs help tracking down Sil – to ensure she is destroyed – so he quickly assembles a team comprising of the mercenary Preston Lennox (Michael Madsen), molecular biologist Dr. Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger), anthropologist Dr. Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina), and “empath” Dan Smithson (Forest Whitaker). But they must act fast! Sil has infiltrated a train bound for Los Angeles, and furthermore has entered an organic cocoon-like state. Soon, Sil will emerge as a woman (Natasha Henstridge), and those nightmares I previously mentioned? Dreams of copulation and conception… Sil wants a child.

“For three million years, the human race has been at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Nothing lasts forever.”

Species (1995)

From start to finish Species is sci-fi schlock with a decent budget (approximately $35 million), a fantastic cast, and a creature design that rivals, well… Alien! And I absolutely love every minute of it! Indeed, H. R. Giger – creator of the creature in Alien; referred to later as the Xenomorph – was the designer behind Sil’s various stages of transformation. Steve Jackson of XFX (Poltergeist II: The Other Side) crafted the practical effects for Sil based on Giger’s designs, utilising full-body animatronics.

Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios was also involved in the creation of computer-generated imagery; including early examples of motion capture, portraying Sil as more agile and aggressive. Revisiting Species over two decades later can be jarring when you directly compare the SFX of XFX with the CGI of Boss Film Studios, but overall the special effects are extremely effective; a testament to the mind of H. R. Giger.

Species (1995)

Can we also take some time to appreciate Natasha Henstridge? I doubt I was the only teenager to have a crush on Sil in the 90s, but to learn that Species was Henstridge’s debut as an actress? Wow! Henstridge had the same childlike innocence displayed earlier in the film by Michelle Williams, but as the instinct for survival takes over, her demeanour soon changes. Not just for Sil, but for her ‘species’. Henstridge managed to make you feel sympathetic for Sil, but also threatened by her throughout.

The only criticism I have of Species is that I’ve always felt the concept was more deserving than what the film itself conveyed. Dennis Feldman’s final script, unfortunately, plays out like standard Sci-Fi Channel action fare; albeit with more nudity and violence than what would have been allowed on cable television at the time. Science has created a threat to humanity that must be stopped at all costs! But the underlying concept of Species is unique. Feldman had avoided the alien invasion trope and instead developed a script that was more akin to the ‘science gone wrong’ movies of the 1950s.

Species (1995)

Reading an article from British science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke suggested that, because stellar distances are so great, and faster-than-light travel was unlikely, space travel would also be unlikely on an interstellar basis. This led to Feldman thinking about speed-of-light communications instead. It would be “unsophisticated for any alien culture to come here”, but what if they taught us how to create life? Forget hardware, but wetware! A new species that would harness our own DNA to ensure it could survive on Earth. All of this can get lost in Roger Donaldson’s workmanlike direction, despite a few moments of brilliance [2], but overall Species is a solid example of 90s sci-fi horror, and one I will revisit again soon.

I would implore the opportunity to read Feldman’s early drafts – to indulge in this concept of predation, and the science behind the ‘species’ themselves. I get the feeling that a lot more was explored than what made it into the final cut.

Author’s notes:

[1] What? No VHS headshot for Marg Helgenberger, MGM? Shame!

[2] Sil’s nightmares are particularly surreal in their design and execution. However, this can be attributed to H. R. Giger rather than Roger Donaldson.

Ken Wynne

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